Pig semen and menstrual blood – how our ancestors perfected the art of seduction

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Pig semen and menstrual blood – how our ancestors perfected the art of seduction

The Love Potion by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919), 1903 - IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

The Love Potion by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919), 1903 - IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo© Provided by The Telegraph

These days, the search for romance can be a minefield of emotionless apps and unrealistic expectations. Saving a relationship or conceiving children can, even with the aid of counselling and fertility treatments, be harder still. Given all this, it may be no surprise that in matters of the heart, we still make recourse to some decidedly non-rational methods. People enter their star signs into online dating sites; the practice of “manifesting” has made a comeback (you can buy manifestation journals that promise to make your dreams come true); decks of love-spell cards are on sale at Waterstones. One newspaper recently ran a feature on three British women who found their ideal partners through love spells; the trio offered their readers tips. 

The use of magic for romantic purposes has a long history in Britain, and these modern examples aren’t merely curiosities: they connect us to our forebears. As I discovered while researching my new book, Cunning Folk, in the medieval and early modern periods such folk – practitioners who sold spells to the public – were a common feature of daily life. From the 13th to the 17th centuries, many cases of magic-use reveal similar desires and conundra to those we experience today.

Seduction spells, in particular, were always popular. Since it has been long established that food and drink act as aphrodisiacs, it shouldn’t be surprising that love potions were common. Goodwife Swane, who lived in Margate in the 1580s, claimed to make drinks so powerful that “if [a woman] give it to any young man she liketh well of, he shall be in love with her”. Her contemporary, a cunning man called John Prestall, boasted that his potions were so popular that no-one would ever be able to hang him, because 500 satisfied clients would bar the way to the gallows. 

The ingredients in such drinks were generally associated with heat, the reasoning being that warmer bodies were more inclined to lust. Pepper and cinnamon were thought to carry heating properties, and were a staple of the mix. What truly made these potions effective, though, was the incorporation of a little human essence. Hence the hopeful lover would add some of their bodily fluids: spit would do the job, but semen or menstrual blood was better. 

Medieval clerics worried that some might take culinary seduction further. A 13th-century manual instructed priests to ask each woman in their flock whether she had “given a fish which has died in her vagina to her husband to eat so that his love will be more inflamed”. (As a fellow academic once said to me, this puts a whole new spin on the phrase “finding Nemo”.) The fact that the dish was expected to be used within marriage, rather than on an extra-conjugal target, belies the kinds of problems people faced within relationships. Marriage was not easy; divorce was almost never an option. Partners had to, at best, seek ways to make their unions tolerable. 

Witches casting a spell to bring rain, 1489 - Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images© Provided by The Telegraph

Blessedly, most spells were less intimate. Joan Squyer, who lived near Canterbury in 1474, admitted stealing holy water from her local church and using it to wash her husband’s shirts. She told her neighbours that this was a fool-proof way of making him “humble and obedient to her will”, and advised them to try it for themselves. The Church was less happy about Squyer’s antics and made her perform penance, but it’s possible that others followed her example. 

How were cunning folk able to get away with such activities, in an era famous for its persecution of supposed witches? The truth is that practical magic was rarely high on the list of priorities for either the ecclesiastical courts – which, pre-Reformation, had far more power – or their secular counterparts. Though the medieval Church did admonish practitioners for being superstitious or blasphemous, overall the greater concern was social ills such as low church attendance and adultery. Besides, given that seduction magic often had a positive aim – spousal harmony, the creation of children – most clerics let them slide. Secular authorities were similarly relaxed: love magic would only become a crime in the 1540s, and rarely was it prosecuted even then. 

Yet these spells sometimes strayed into darker territories, at which point both Church and state sat up and took notice. In 1435, three men from Edlingham in Northumberland accused Margaret Lyndyssay of making them impotent by magically “binding their virile members”. This probably refers to the practice of ritualistically tying knots in string, then placing the charm under the victim’s bed. When the man tried to “perform”, the blood vessels would be bound up like the string, leaving him limp. Why Lyndyssay wanted to do this isn’t known, though in similar cases the spell was used for revenge by jilted lovers. Had she been living a generation later, things might have turned out badly for her: the inquisitor Heinrich Kramer wrote in his 1487 text Malleus Maleficarum that causing impotence was a favourite activity of malevolent witches. In the 1430s, however, the Church wasn’t too concerned about witchcraft, and Lyndyssay was able to deny the claims against her. Her accusers were even warned against spreading such rumours, on pain of excommunication.

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 altered the definition of magical practice from something real and prohibited to a form of charlatanry - Universal History Archive/Getty Images© Provided by The Telegraph

At least impotence spells could be easily undone, simply by finding and unknotting the string. Coercive magic could be much more harmful. Take John Meere, a law student at Temple in London in the 1580s, who had his sights set on one Mrs Editha Best. She flatly refused to sleep with him, but his attentions continued, becoming persistent and aggressive. He eventually threatened to summon the Devil to torment Best until she either consented to his demands or went mad. She gave into Meere out of terror. Disturbingly, practices like this haven’t vanished today. Only this month, a man from the Swansea area was convicted of harassing his ex-partner, and his behaviour included buying a “voodoo spell” to make her love him.

That said, magic was used for benevolent purposes more often than malevolent. Then, as now, fertility was a recurrent concern for married couples. Magical aids abounded for those having trouble. One popular method involved tying a pouch full of herbs, powders and scrolls bearing magic words around one’s neck, before having sex. (Surviving records don’t explain exactly how this was meant to help.) Edith Hooker, from New Alresford near Winchester, had a more unsettling approach. She claimed to be able to help women conceive without the need of a man – because she used “the spawn of a trotter”, meaning pig semen, instead. 

The Love Potion by Mihály von Zichy (1868) - Artefact / Alamy Stock Photo© Provided by The Telegraph

As far-fetched as it may sound, Hooker’s method tapped into a wider debate about whether women could conceive with non-human partners. A number of thinkers were particularly curious about whether demons could inseminate people. Writing in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas argued that such things were possible, but not because demons were fertile. Rather, he suggested, they shaped themselves into succubi (woman-shaped demons) to have sex with men, captured human semen in their bodies, then turned into incubi (man-shaped demons) to seduce women and impregnate them with the stolen seed. Aquinas was thereby able to explain the common reports of women becoming pregnant with demon spawn while denying that the Devil had the power to create life – something only God could grant. James VI of Scotland discussed this theory in his 1597 treatise Daemonologie, but concluded it was unlikely to be true. 

Changes in legislation show that belief in magic waned over time at a judicial level. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 altered the definition of magical practice from something real and prohibited to a form of charlatanry; this in turn was replaced in 1951 with the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which further emphasised that magic could not be real. We had finally reached a point at which the supernatural didn’t, as far as British officialdom was concerned, exist.

But the key word here is “officialdom”. Magical practice has never fully died out. During the initial Covid-19 lockdowns, fortune-telling experienced a boom in demand. The website Etsy offers a vast range of love spells to those who want to woo someone (or win them back). There are even books of seduction recipes available. Go ahead and try them – but maybe bear that 13th-century manual in mind, and check the ingredients first.

Cunning Folk: Life in the Era of Practical Magic by Tabitha Stanmore is published by Bodley Head on May 2  

Story by Tabitha Stanmore: The Telegraph: 
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